Workforce development amid the ongoing pandemic is a key focus for El Paso County leaders, who said Tuesday they will spend the largest portion of nearly $70 million in federal relief funds the county recently received to bolster the local economy.
The federal funds are half of the nearly $140 million total the county will receive under President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, passed in March to foster recovery from the pandemic. The money can be used to further cover pandemic response, invest in infrastructure and provide assistance to small businesses, households and industries. El Paso County will receive the remainder of its allocated funds next May, County Controller Nikki Simmons said. The new round of federal relief funds must be spent by Dec. 31, 2024.
The county previously received $125.7 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — or CARES Act — funding last year. It shared the funds with eight of its municipalities, including $34.7 million to Colorado Springs.
Spending guidelines for American Rescue Plan Act dollars are much broader than the CARES Act, Simmons said. That will help spur the economy to avoid the kind of lagging recovery the country saw with the recession, Colorado Municipal League Executive Director Kevin Bommer previously said.
The funding cannot be used to replace lost tax revenue, Simmons said.
El Paso County plans to allocate $20 million — or 29% of the nearly $70 million it recently received — to aid economic and workforce development, she said. This includes funding another round of grants to businesses to help them financially recover from pandemic-related closures, and provide job training and placement support; supporting local tourism and chambers of commerce; and retraining workers in industries severely impacted by the pandemic.
“We’re going to be able to go out and help workers get trained and then be able to be employed, and get our economy back to pre-pandemic unemployment numbers,” Simmons said. “That’s our goal.”
El Paso County previously used $14 million in CARES Act monies to aid economic recovery, distributing most of it through grants to businesses, business support groups and local chambers of commerce — a move commissioners lauded Tuesday. They said the new round of funding was critical to further boost the local economy.
“We’ve got to get the economy back. We’ve got to get the workforce back. Those are our challenges,” Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said. “I think this goes a long way toward us achieving that.”
El Paso County has set aside $17 million to fund continued COVID-19 response, particularly in the county jail where medical costs for inmates are “significantly higher” than they were before the pandemic, Simmons said.
In November the county jail became the site of the largest outbreak among Colorado inmates since the pandemic began, with more than 1,000 people incarcerated at the El Paso County jail testing positive for COVID-19.
County commissioners last week agreed to pay $65,000 to settle a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado on behalf of six jail inmates last December in U.S. District Court in Denver. The lawsuit alleged inmates were deprived of masks for months during the pandemic, helping spawn the outbreak, The Gazette reported.
County Public Health will receive $8 million to “fill in the gaps” where other federal funding the department is receiving for vaccinations, testing and general COVID-19 response cannot be used, Simmons said.
Five million dollars will fund county stormwater projects, which Department of Public Works officials are working to identify, she said. Another $8 million will finance improvements to county water infrastructure. The county is working with regional water districts to determine the best use of funding, Simmons said.
Funds obligated to a major infrastructure project by the end of 2024, when the funds must be spent, can be used to complete those projects through Dec. 31, 2026. The extension is crucial because those types of projects are lengthy, Simmons said.
“Even though the end of 2024 sounds like a long way away, when you’re talking about stormwater and water infrastructure the fact that we can actually spend the money until Dec. 31, 2026 is helpful,” Simmons said.
The county has also budgeted $1 million for individual and family assistance and $1 million to help administer the grants, she said, while $10 million remains unallocated to account for unforeseen costs or new budget items.
“We know that this is a fluid situation and things come up all the time,” Simmons said. “We have no idea what this fall looks like, what next year looks like. Because this is a 3 ½-year grant, we want to make sure we’re not allocating 100% of it right up front, in case our estimates are off or in case new ideas (for how to spend the funds) come forward.”
The city of Colorado Springs will receive $76.77 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, while smaller communities like Manitou Springs, Monument and Woodland Park were expecting payments administered through the state.
Manitou Springs was expected to receive $1.16 million, Woodland Park $1.69 million and Monument $1.7 million, data provided by the Colorado Municipal League in March showed.
Teller County was expected to receive $4.92 million, the data showed.